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7 ways to be a better ally to transgender women of color

We need to talk about inequality in equality movements. 

It’s an unexpected problem, and one that is especially present in the push for LGBTQ rights. The LGBTQ movement has long been critiqued for focusing on white gay men above all others. Anyone deviating from that description often experiences tension in a movement that claims to include but commonly excludes them.

But there's one group that especially needs attention in this conversation of misplaced focus: transgender women of color. Holding multiple marginalized identities leaves them vulnerable to layered violence and discrimination, and that can extremely risky — sometimes, deadly.

The majority of hate violence homicides in the LGBTQ community target transgender women of color, who also experience some of the highest rates of sexual violence, police brutality and employment discrimination.

But trans women of color have held undeniable importance in the queer community, from being the force behind the iconic Stonewall rebellion to embodying some of the most intense struggle that queer people can experience.

Even in facing down all this violence, trans women of color are rising in resilience to demand rights and respect — and true allies need to help them in that struggle.

If you don’t know where to start in improving your allyship, use these seven tips to help you navigate how to be a better ally to trans women of color.

Trans women of color experience overlapping and intertwining barriers that keep them from being heard. Their experiences with gender and race — or, rather, a complex combination of those identities — often leaves trans women of color easily ignored or silenced by those who have privilege.

Being an ally means addressing that head-on, by undoing that dynamic in your own life. And it all comes down to something relatively simple: listening.

For activist Raquel Willis, the first thing she notices about a good ally is someone who gives her the space to be heard. It’s an easy thing to notice, she says, because it's a space she doesn’t often get.

“A good ally doesn’t try to steer the narrative for trans people,” she tells Mashable. “They just listen. They understand that their role is to support me by hearing me first.”

Listening — completely and actively — actually takes a lot of work. But when you're an ally, it’s a mandatory effort.

If you don’t have a network of trans women of color in your life (or even if you do), take time to listen by reading about their lives and struggles through first-person narratives — even if they're tough to find.

If you're actively listening to the experiences of trans women of color, you're getting an education at the same time. It’s important to value that as something trans women of color are empowered to share with you, but never as something they're obligated to grant you.

If there are gaps in your knowledge, it isn't the job of trans women of color to fill them. You should seek out the answers to your own questions, often through good, old-fashioned research.

"As an ally, it’s important to understand that it's your duty to seek out information about different groups, and the collective struggle they may have,” Willis says.

Though not often heard, trans women of color are indeed speaking about their struggles on social media, via hashtags like #GirlsLikeUs and #BlackTransLivesMatter, through blogs, or through academic writing. Value that work by engaging with it.

But all of these lessons aren’t something to keep you yourself. As important as it is to embrace learning through listening, it’s equally as important to pass it along.

"Allyship is about how you use information and education and awareness in spaces that don’t have [trans women of color’s] bodies — spaces where they aren’t present,” Willis says.

She adds that the biggest call-to-action for allies is to educate. It lifts the burden from trans women of color to constantly teach about their own trauma and struggle, while also helping to reach privileged populations who often ignore their voices.

Even with a hyper-focus on a group like trans women of color, it's important to recognize experiences aren't universal within that group. 

It’s essential for allies to acknowledge there isn’t one standard "trans woman of color" experience.

"There’s a duty as an ally to not take one trans woman of color’s story as the only story,” Willis says. “If you are really interested in being an ally, you have to understand that there are so many diverse narratives out there.”

Willis says that even as a black trans woman, some parts of her narrative stem from privileges that other trans women of color may not have. She grew up in a middle-class household, had access to education and had a stable family structure to depend on. But that isn't the case for many trans women of color.

"We need to lift up the most marginalized people in the community," she says. "It’s really about the people who don’t have the access, who can’t do an interview, who can’t tell their stories."

Bamby Salcedo, president and CEO of Trans Latin@ Coalition, says that while it's necessary to have members of the community who will speak on their experiences publicly, that sometimes comes with the risk of promoting a single story.

“There's only some of us who get this recognition and get our lives highlighted," Salcedo says. "But unfortunately a lot of lives are not highlighted — especially that of a trans woman who is homeless or a trans woman who has had a hard time getting a job."

As an ally, be aware of the danger of the single story — and work to reject it.

While there's more to the lives of trans women of color than the violence they face, this narrative does bring up a major need. Trans women of color need to be valued, embraced and protected — and many advocates argue legal protections are key.

Law, when sensitively enforced, plays an undeniable role in shifting culture, providing expectations of respect for vulnerable communities — and, currently, legal safeguards for trans women of color leave much to be desired.

"A lot of black trans women can’t find employment because of discrimination," Willis says. "A lot of black trans women don’t have access to education due to getting kicked out of their homes. There’s also the very real reality of trans women of color having to do sex work because there are no avenues for employment."

Salcedo calls supporting legal protections a sort of "investment" in the community.

"We need to hold our elected officials accountable for what is happening," Salcedo says, referring to the daily discrimination trans women of color fear or endure. "We need to realize the power we have and organize to create the changes we want to see in policy and our community."

To learn more about how the law has the potential to help support trans women of color, visit the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Transgender Law Center.

To discover what your state is doing to protect trans women of color, visit this interactive map.

While legal protections are undeniably important, it can feel overwhelming to tackle the law as your only method of allyship and action. A more tangible path allies can take to make noticeable, daily change for trans women of color is in their own conversations.

"Policy and laws and legislation — all that stuff is great and that does shift the culture a good chunk," Willis says. "But also what shifts the culture is these everyday conversations that we have."

Willis says good allies will include trans women of color in tough conversations impacting their various communities — from violence against women to racial justice to LGBTQ equality. This inclusion helps put focus on the complex violence and discrimination trans women of color experience, while also shedding light on their often overlooked or misrepresented experiences.

A common example Willis gives is confronting the way society talks about the murders of trans women of color. If you are talking with someone who tries to blame a trans woman of color for "deceiving" someone, for example, see that as an opportunity to engage.

"That moment is a moment for you to really step up, and say that’s not OK," she says.

For allies of trans women of color, risking unearned privilege is essential.

"It's all about tackling these conversations at every turn,” Willis says. “And that can be risky. That can be scary. There can be social ramifications for saying something like that.”

If you have privilege, feeling bad about it does very little. Using it as a tool to lift others up, however, can be incredibly powerful.

“If you think there’s no risk in being an ally, then maybe you aren’t doing enough,” Willis says. "If you think it is going to be a breeze or that you can change your profile picture on Facebook and tackle what we need, that's not it."

It's crucial to remember risking privilege is never close to the daily harm, fear and challenges trans women of color experience when living out their identities unapologetically.

Even making the decision to risk your comfort is a luxury — populations like trans women of color don’t have the ability to choose.

One of the key parts of being an ally to any community is understanding and accepting that you will never know the full story. Embracing that, especially when it comes to a group experiencing layered and complicated oppression, is essential.

Willis says that a good ally, especially to trans women of color, should be open to feeling vulnerable and uneducated, but should constantly look to change that.

But, she admits, the nature of allyship makes that goal impossible to ever completely achieve.

"Being an ally is hard to talk about because it is, at the same time, both simple and complex," she says. "It's about respecting the other person’s full humanity, but it’s also about understanding how to do that. And how to do that is really difficult because I don’t think most people have ever been fully respected in their humanity.

"To not know what that feels like and then have the desire to grant that to someone else is a really hard spot to be in," she adds.

Embrace the discomfort, and know it's your duty to never stop learning how to be a better ally.

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